Family and Strangers

Detailed comments for Q&A # 9: “Is it true that most sexual activity with children is done by their family members, and not by strangers?”

Several government studies have shown that most sexual activity with children and adolescents is by family members, not strangers. The same is also true of physical injury and (intrinsically) neglect. This report reviews the data from some of these studies.

The Children’s Bureau of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) publishes Child Maltreatment,1 an annual statistical review of cases reported to Child Protective Services agencies in the United States. It consistently finds that the perpetrators in the great majority of cases are parents. For example, in the 2005 edition, out of 93,000 cases of physical injury2 of children and adolescents, parents were responsible for 76 percent and other relatives committed another seven percent. Of the 67,000 cases of sexual activity with a juvenile, parents accounted for 26 percent and other relatives 29 percent.3

The HHS data also show that the most common relationship of the perpetrator of maltreatment is the mother. In 40 percent of cases, it was the mother acting alone and in 23 percent, the mother acting together with either the father or someone else.4 However, these statistics are not as surprizing as they seem at first. The data that specify mother and father relationships are not broken down by the type of maltreatment involved, so they are mainly driven by the 520,000 cases of child neglect, which naturally must be blamed on the primary caregiver, who is usually the mother.

Some older data give more details on sexual activity in particular.5

The US National Center for Juvenile Justice presented statistics in 2000 on 60,000 cases of illegal sexual activity in twelve states from 1991 through 1996.6 According to this study, 34 percent of cases of sexual activity with a juvenile were committed by a family member, 59 percent by an acquaintance, and seven percent by a stranger.7 The younger the child, the greater the likelihood that the perpetrator was a family member: 49 percent for children under six, with only three percent of this activity being by strangers. Seventy-seven percent of sexual activity with a juvenile occurred inside a residence, or 87 percent for children under six.8

  Age and relationship of child sexual assault victims and offenders
Age and relationship of child sexual assault victims and offenders.
Source: NCJJ, Ch 2, p 29

In the previous year, the same agency presented an analysis of the same data that included a breakdown by age of the person committing the crime.9 The results are shown in the chart to the right. According to this data, most sexual activity with children six years old and younger was by friends and family members aged 12-17 (29%) and by family members over 25 (26%). For those aged seven to eleven, activity was mostly with family members and friends over age 34 (30%) and with older juvenile friends and family members (27%). For youth aged 12 to 17, the largest proportions of sexual activity were with young adult friends (27%) and with friends in the same age range as the youths (20%). Sexual activity with strangers was rare across all categories, and was the most rare for the youngest children.

A survey of state prison inmates by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1997 was used to determine the victim characteristics of 50,000 men serving sentences for sexual activity with one juvenile. Of these, the victim was the child or step-child of 31 percent of the prisoners, another relative of 14 percent, a friend or acquaintance of 47 percent, and a stranger to seven percent of the prisoners.10  


1. Child Maltreatment, Children's Bureau (US HHS) (Link, , Link)

2. See the Children Harmed by Individuals section of the SOLR report, How Children are Harmed, for the definitions of child maltreatment by neglect, physical injury, and sexual activity.

3. See Child Maltreatment 2005 (, ), Children's Bureau (US HHS), 2007 (Link, Link), Table 3-17.

4. See same, Table 3-16.

5. We use the term sexual activity here in place of the government’s terms, sexual violence, sexual assault, and sexual abuse. Government data are collected in a way that makes it impossible to know whether force was used in the crimes recorded or not. See the SOLR report, Discerning Use of Force in Sexual Crimes.

6. Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics by Howard N. Snyder, National Center for Juvenile Justice (US DoJ), July 2000 (Link)
     This report is based entirely on NIBRS data. See the SOLR report, Discerning Use of Force in Sexual Crimes, for an explanation of why the term sexual assault in the title of the report is not appropriate for use with this data.

7. See same, Table 6, page 10.

8. See same, Table 4, page 6.

9. Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report, National Center for Juvenile Justice (US DoJ), September 1999 (, Publications. Other editions also at Publications page.). See Chapter 2, page 29.

10. Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994 by Patrick A. Langan, Erica L. Schmitt, and Matthew R. Durose, Bureau of Justice Statistics (US DoJ), November 2003 (Link). See table on page 36.


Page posted on January 28, 2009.
Page copyright © 2009, SOL Research. All rights reserved.